This blog entry is one big “thank you for saving my butt” to the MacDowell colony this season. If you don’t know what this place is, it’s an “artist colony”—really one of the top very few in the world—where you can go for a period of time in retreat and truly immerse yourself in your work. It is for all stripes of creative artists, so I was there with about twenty writers of fiction and non, choreographers, playwrights, sculptors and visual artists, architects, and of course, other composers. It was the middle of this summer, and I was appreciative of the cool New Hampshire weather.
As a fellow, you are given a cabin in the woods to yourself for the duration of your stay; a studio outfitted with the necessities (desk, piano, bed, a fireplace…) and you can spend all of your time there if you want. The only expectation is that your presence is requested at dinner (or at least notification of your lack-of-presence so that they don’t send a search-and-rescue party to make sure you weren’t eaten by bears). That’s really it, and there are no obligations to create and there should be no pressure to produce anything. A “colonist” isn’t even supposed to inquire about what another is working on out of respect for the peaceful space around the creative process that MacDowell supports. To keep that space undisturbed during the day, a picnic basket is quietly dropped off outside of your studio for lunch.
When I got there in June, my life had become something of a train-wreck-slash-hurricane, with an extra bit of bedlam-slash-pandemonium thrown in. I felt like I had taken on too much work, which is how I usually feel (I say about once per month: “but this time I really don’t know how I’m going to do all of this…”)
My first trip to an artist colony was to Yaddo, which is another one of these idyllic settings, and I was 25 years old¬–about ten years younger than anyone else there. Perhaps I was too young to own good work habits yet, but it was a tremendous learning experience for me to be around older accomplished artists. I had expected an “artist colony” to be like a college dorm for adult creative types who would be running around in various states of carousal and merrymaking. Instead, I met about two dozen serious professionals who went away into the seclusion of their work all day, had a friendly dinner and a drink together, and then went back to their studios for further immersion. I get it now.
Each successive visit to these places has become more valuable to me, and this last visit to MacDowell was the difference between daily anxiety attacks over a pressed deadline and the satisfactory completion of my work. I had just under a month to write my string orchestra piece “Virtuosity” for the excellent East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), which was sandwiched between a piano quartet for the 25th anniversary of the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute and finishing work on a bassoon concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
You learn an enormous amount about yourself when you are alone all day and every day. The time and space becomes enormous when you don’t have a grind to follow, and for me at least, I had to detox from the constant scheduling, river of electronic communication, and the bright flashing lights of big city in my quotidian life. The silence alone makes a space where you cannot be distracted from yourself and where you can’t use the pretense of “busy” to avoid self-critique and looking within.
Here are 6 not-so-easy steps to preserve your creative space.
1) Flee from temptation: bring what you need to your studio and make sure that if that includes a computer or ipad or phone that you do what you can to avoid the evil, evil internets. If you have a personal modem, leave it in your room or car. Most of these places don’t have the evil, evil internets in studios, but do have wi-fi in main buildings. Unplugging is one of the best things you can do to keep your work habits whole.
2) Hide your phone: I would leave my phone outside of my studio in the entryway on silent, so that it was there in case of emergency but just outside of my reach. What was terrifying was how much I would instinctively reach for the phone-not-there, like a phantom limb. Terrifying.
I noticed that every time I would pick up my phone, be it for a call or text (whether or not I responded), or to check Facebook, Twitter, or Imgur for cat pictures, I was interrupting myself. And every time I was interrupted I would have to go back to the beginning of whatever bit I was working on and start over again. This is deadly to the creative process, and the scariest part was that until the phone was sitting outside, I didn't realize how many times I interrupted myself during the day until I was without the phone and reaching for it in the air. Scary.
3) Take walks, take naps: Part of detoxing from the real world is learning slowness. Very little we do now is slow and focused, yet to create that centered space is vital to have. The afternoon nap during a rain shower is everything.
4) Establish a routine: mine involved having a big breakfast, driving to town to get coffee from this wonderful place, and then composing from 8AM-11AM. I’d take an hour to read and then eat lunch. A walk, afternoon nap, and then back to work until dinner. After dinner return to the studio and put in another hour to follow up and assess what I wrote that day. And sometimes candlepin bowling.
5) Engage in conversation: Withdrawing from society is a wonderful thing, but you need to maintain some human contact, no matter how great your desire for hermitage. At these artist colonies, you will meet amazing people spending their lives doing fascinating things.
It used to be that artists spent time together in the cafés of Vienna and Paris, and the bars of New York. We’re all lucky to have any kind of leisure time today to relax and talk about the otherworldly, and with the vast connection of the internet comes an intrinsic detachment from the people all around you. These conversations, with other artists from all walks and types and media, can have an influence on your work that echoes throughout the rest of your life.
6) Treasure the silence: rare and precious.